South Africa’s most valuable and, arguably, gifted artist spent a lifetime searching throughout Africa and the world. But did she find what or who she was looking for?
Words: Nick van der Leek
Pictures: Nick van der Leek and Supplied
I’m hoping to get a sense of what’s so ‘outstanding’ about Irma Stern at an auction. Hobnobbing with the haut monde, mixing with aristocrats – isn’t it going to be a fool’s errand? This is not only the first artist I’m going to meet at an auction, it’s my first time at an art auction anywhere, ever. I doubt it’s going to be enough, but I have to start somewhere.
As I arrive the auction kicks off. Behind the auctioneer is a small square painting. I see first-hand the white tannie in a green jacket wearing a Basuto hat produced in 1943. I’m surprised none of the artists are introduced, nor is there any backstory to their works. There’s just a mercenary naming and selling.
Well-heeled millionaires lift their numbers to timidly add tens or hundreds of thousands to a bid. I suddenly wish I had brought a few odd thousand for some of the artworks. Well, to be honest, I wish I had a few hundred thousand lying around so I could afford them. Some lovely Hugo Naudés and Boonzaiers are snapped up by some lucky bloke.
Two Pierneefs and a Tretchikoff go for half a million and more than a million. The Stern is by far the most expensive artwork of the evening, and goes for five times the second-most expensive Pierneef, bringing
the hammer down at R5 115 600.
On my way out, I take a close look at the original Basuto hat in a glass case, and then emerge from the egg-yellow cocoon of the Wanderer’s Club into the cold Joburg night. As I thought, the auction wasn’t much help.
I do have a secret weapon with me, a small paperback in my hand, Remembering Irma, by Mona Berman [Double Storey 2003].
On my way to Zululand the next morning, I begin thumbing through it while waiting in traffic at a tollgate. ‘Irma was extremely curious about the Mangbetu – who, she heard, ‘only one generation back had been man-eaters.’ She was determined to make contact with them. After meeting them and being allowed to paint them, she described the people with great admiration:
‘It was strange to plunge right among so savage a tribe and yet only to be aware of a rare artistic taste which had for years been exciting and stimulating the art world of Europe. Here were the creators of magnificent pieces of sculpture, carved out of wood, of fetishes and masks, grotesque and beautiful revealing primitive ancestral worship and its world alive with spirits…’
As banana plantations unfold around me, I begin to connect the first dots. Mona Berman used to be Mona Feldman, Freda Feldman’s daughter. Freda, the tannie in the Basuto hat, was a very close friend of Stern’s, and Stern wrote many letters to her over the years.
When Freda died Mona inherited a box of letters. At one stage Mona transcribed all the letters onto her computer, but when she updated her software, the computer was formatted and all the data lost. Another book was published at that time, so Mona decided to leave things at that, and Irma Stern’s own words were trapped, as if behind a locked door whose key had been lost forever.
My road along the N3 is never straight. It loops like a rollercoaster, at one point shooting through one side of a cloud and out the other.
But in 2001 it occurred to Mona that if she didn’t resurrect Irma’s letters to her mother ‘a chapter of her life’ would be lost. And so she did. Not only did this bring context back to Stern’s legacy, but Stern herself.
Mona introduces us to Irma, and Irma introduces us to Freda. What makes it authentic is Mona’s initial dislike for – as a teenager – and even embarrassment of, an abrasive, overbearing and increasingly overweight woman. Through Mona we see through the lurid expressionism; Stern suddenly becomes simultaneously less stern and more Stern, but also more Irma.
Mona’s dislike for Irma began with a drawing of baby Mona, nude of course, which Mona describes – not unreasonably – as ‘the insensitivity of the adult world invading the privacy of the young’. Mona as a young adult got the better of Irma, cracking jokes with her buddies about Irma’s bulk behind her back.
‘I showed little kindness to Irma. I could not see beyond her size, her eccentricities, her petulant manner and her egotistical lifestyle. Like most people I felt awkward and ignorant in her company. I did not know what to say to her, and when I found something to say she seemed to pay no attention’.
If Irma was a snob, Freda was not, and perhaps this partly accounted for the fierce loyalty the two women shared. When Irma visited the Feldmans, poor Mona described these visits as invasions too, for ‘she took over our lives, transforming my parents into people we did not know, who no longer had time for their own children, so busy were they attending to her never-ending needs.’ Other painters’ artworks had to be hidden away when Irma came to visit.
So Irma was high maintenance. But she was also fascinating. On one occasion, hearing the movement of furniture at dawn, Mona snuck downstairs and caught the artist painting their fireplace. She rushed to tell her mother, but Freda swore her daughter to remain quiet so as not to disturb Irma. Mona watched breathlessly as the large woman spun her magic wand. When she was done, she’d left behind something priceless, tethered permanently to the very fabric of Feldman’s home.
Mona also reveals amazing insights into Irma’s appetite. No sooner had Irma painted a still life (with food or fruit in it), ‘she would devour them’. Through Mona we find letters where Irma herself admits to her preoccupation with food, ‘I feel as though my face was made of fruit, my arms and breast are bananas and apples, my nose a prune, my hair lots of carrots’.
The most important member of Stern’s household was Charlie, the cook, who Stern apparently brought back from Zanzibar, along with a pair of hand-carved wooden doors.
On another occasion, Freda went to pick up Irma at a gallery in Eloff Street, with Mona cowering in embarrassment out of sight in the back seat. Irma climbed into the car exasperated with the gallery owner. “I feel like screaming,” she declared, to which Freda answered, “Then scream.” And so scream Irma did, a high-pitched shriek Mona writes she will ‘never forget’. Eloff street became Mona’s ‘Avenue of Shame’, but the stress relief worked because afterwards the artist was ‘quite cheerful’.
I arrive in Durban at night with minibuses diving left and right like it is the Wild West. On a slim sliver of Zululand sandwiched between concrete highways and bridges, I notice a solitary figure making a small, bright fire for himself. After a long time behind the wheel, I drive along the beachfront in search of a hotel. Huge Indian Ocean waves pound the dark Earth.
‘I am at present just in a slight state of overwork and depression – suffer from terrible dreams and am taking it easy for a few days – getting my hats and shoes in order and so forth…’ But deeper things were nagging, as she wrote in 1935, ‘It looks to me – this is my last trip trying to find things that are dying out – thanks to ourselves.’
Sometimes it seems as though Stern was a European artist who belonged to and in Europe. ‘I do not know how I shall fit into African boredom again – I have re-acquired all my European habits of love for everything the best. Fashionable allures…red lacquered nails…the most fascinating hats and shoes are mine – If I think of Adderley Street I shudder. Maybe I go straight up to Zululand’.
The next morning, that’s exactly where I am, walking along the beachfront. It suddenly feels like another world – rich with faces, salty, summery. If Stern was a product of European finery, she was also part of an identity that was trying to survive in the world, especially in the 1940s.
If Stern was used to her refinements, Africa was worth letting go of them to find herself. In Africa she discovered the raw tribalism lacking in civilised Europe. This was a world rich with life, rich with idiosyncrasy and authenticity. This was a place where people thrived at simply being who they were. But Stern was also capturing the last flickers of a dying Africa.
In February 1955 Irma wrote about losing the ‘lovely fairy-tale outlook on Native life’ of her early work. ‘It can hardly continue when I see the most lovely people acting not like children but like devils… I can understand their sudden awakening and finding their land full of white raced people [she was referring to Kenya]…who have their foot on their necks…but still I cannot say I am looking happy and peacefully into the future of our South Africa. We are just passionately awaiting a huge blood bath….stoking on it daily – hourly – giving with the left hand and taking with the right… I am wondering where to go’.
It is on the boulevards of Durban that I see Irma Stern, not for the end of her journey but the beginning. Stern died an agonising death from complications of diabetes in 1966, just prior to an exhibition she believed would have ‘made her’.
What really made Irma Stern?
She was Jewish-German from a very wealthy family born in Schweitzer-Renecke. Stern’s father was interned in a concentration camp by the British during the Boer War because of his pro-Boer leanings. Irma and her younger brother were secreted to Cape Town by their mother. After the war, the Sterns returned to Germany and travelled constantly. This travelling lifestyle influenced not merely Irma’s work, but her identity.
She found her identity not in the finery of Europe or an extravagant lifestyle, but in Africa. In Africa she felt the loss and the threat upon her own identity and sense of self in the plight of Africa, and the Africans. It was Stern’s relationship with all these fading people and idiosyncratic tribal personalities that resonated with her. It was searching for the fairy-tale ending to the threat on her own identity, and the lingering threat on the Jewish identity.
Stern’s expressionism was a vivid and vivacious shield against the deprivations and invasions of a cruel world and the Natural Order. But rather than in her expressionistic opposition to the world, it was in those rare instances of dreamy impressionism that Stern found herself.
She identified so much with her White Lilies, painted in March 1941, that she chose to be photographed in front of them. A Cape Argus reviewer called the work ‘among the best things she has done’.
Three years later Stern did another painting, simply titled Lilies. Instead of abrasive they were sublime. Instead of a dark, meaty, tribalistic caricature there is subtlety, nuance and harmony.
The colours are crisp instead of cartoonish, creamy instead of saucy. The effect is one of concord, where the artist has unlearned what she had learned and, in so doing, has undone what she had been doing.
In Lilies, we see a softness and a quietude that speaks not only of the depths of Irma Stern’s relationship with the world and the people in it, but also of the relationship between the world and a person.
Sometimes what is broken can be restored, sometimes what is unforgiven can be healed. Sometimes what is lost can be found.